Blog readers, meet Eva. She is my Taiwanese college roommate from Stanford, one of my best friends, and kind of a sister to me. She and her family have been my cultural translators for Taipei and Taiwan (although she currently lives in Boston), and I will be referring to their help and guidance throughout my adventure.
She has also been a great language buddy with whom I’ve been practicing my burgeoning (and bumbling) Mandarin. And at the risk of turning this into a food blog, one of the most effective ways to learn Chinese vocabulary I’ve found is through discussing food!
So before I left, I asked Eva what her top 5 favorite Taiwanese foods are, that I must try when I arrived in Taiwan. Her answers provided a great lesson in Chinese language and the fascinating etymologies of meaning that lie embedded in each combination of characters. Eva’s list of Taiwanese highlights was as follows:
1. Beef noodle soup- 牛肉麵 (niu rou mian)
2. Stir fried vegetables, in particular, watercress- 炒空心菜 (chao kong xin cai)
3. Potstickers- 鍋貼 (guo tie)
4. Grilled Sausage with Basil- 烤香腸和九層塔 (kao xiang chang he/han jiu ceng ta)
5. Stinky Tofu- 臭豆腐 (chou do fu)
The great part about these five food items– besides obvious mouth-watering side effects– is that in explaining the characters components, Eva showed me how meaning is built in Chinese from each character being put together with other ones. Sausage literally consists of the characters that mean “fragrant intestine” (香 xiang 腸 chang). Then, Eva’s preferred filling of basil is built from the characters that mean “nine layer tower” (九層塔 jiu ceng ta), which refers directly to the way the basil plant grows: in many layers stalked around a thin stalk, like a tower. Isn’t that awesome? As a writer and general language geek, I think it’s wicked cool!!
Even better, or at least more poetic, are the characters for watercress, kong xin cai (空心菜), which literally mean “empty heart vegetable,” because watercress has empty tubes as stalks. In response to our collective sighing about the lovely melancholy nature of watercress, I told Eva about the time that I took refuge at a Boston Pho restaurant after a particularly harsh workshop critique of my writing, and dined on empty heart soup. (At least that would have been a more evocative phrase for it than simply Pho)
Although I hope to avoid writing very bad Chinese-character-inspired poetry, these fascinating etymologies will help me to remember how to write characters and recognize character patterns better. Instead of sounding out words phonetically like I did when learning to read English, I can try to “meaning-out” the word and build its meaning from the connotations of each character within it, though I don’t know the idiomatic nuances yet.
Have you ever found in a foreign language a literal translation or an idiom that made you laugh, or start to think harder about that language? Perhaps made you feel like an “empty heart vegetable,” or a “stinky bean decay” (stinky tofu)?
Full disclosure here: I went to my first Night Market at Tong Hua last night, and dined happily on both of the above items. I’m a huge fan– and despite my better judgment, still want to write an ode to the empty heart vegetable and a sonnet to stinky tofu!